Gradually, then all of a sudden, the world has been forced to adapt to remote work. This is a market map and exploration of 200+ startups in 45+ categories amongst a larger sea of businesses that are changing how we get things done outside the office. At SignalFire, we take a human + technology approach to evaluating new spaces and supporting exceptional founders building the future of evolving markets. We use data to find patterns & trends and layer human judgement & curation to predict market shifts and winners in different categories. Read on for an analysis of the rapidly developing remote work landscape and the implications on the broader future of work. If you’re building something special in the space, reach out to us!
For those who prefer Airtable (which is definitely my preferred way to mentally map), you can access all 200+ companies here or see the embedded view below.
The Rise Of Remote Work
The trend towards remote work had been slowly inching up among the US and global knowledge workforce since the early 2000s. In recent years, successful companies such as Gitlab, Zapier, Automattic, Basecamp, and more have banged the “Remote Work” drum, normalizing the practice of having no office and allowing employees to work from wherever they choose. A slightly less dramatic trend towards hub-and-spoke distributed work with a HQ office and either small satellite offices or solo workers across the US and the globe has become extremely prevalent among technology companies and startups. Anecdotally, nearly all of SignalFire’s portfolio companies with more than 10 employees have remote teams or workers while also maintaining an office.
Due to Covid-19, we’ve seen essentially 100% of knowledge workers and 58% of the US workforce holistically forced to work from home for the last 3 months. Prior to March, approximately 29% of US white collar workers worked remotely either all or most of the time (a 44% increase over the last 5 years and 109% increase over the last 10 years).
At first it was unclear whether most employees could be productive at home and the assumption was that people would go back to their status quo the second the shelter-in-place orders were lifted. As time has gone on, sentiments have completely shifted with companies realizing productivity hasn’t gone down, and employees actually liking the flexibility and the lack of commute. Twitter announced “WFH forever” (if you choose) and a number of companies followed suit such as Square and Facebook. Extrapolating to the future, it is looking like this shift could be the single largest change to how we work since the birth of the internet.
As companies large and small make the shift from being centralized to being either distributed (hub & spoke or small satellite offices with no HQ) or fully remote, there are a number of things that must be addressed from hiring and payroll to collaboration and engagement. While analyzing companies that started as remote-first from day one can provide some useful insights as to what works and what tools companies adopt, there will likely be a wave of new tools and products that help propel previously co-located companies to adopt remote and distributed work in the long run.
In reading blog posts, listening to podcasts, and watching interviews with remote-first founders, it is clear that they’ve intentionally structured their companies differently than traditional startups and have put an over-emphasis on things like documentation, culture, employee well-being, and flexibility. Remote and distributed work shifts the focus from synchronous to asynchronous. Meetings in a conference room with a whiteboard are being replaced with collaboration within cloud applications, video conferences, and primarily communicating through email or messaging platforms.
When thinking through the remote work landscape, there is a clear order of operations in which needs must be met, from first hiring someone from afar to challenging them with ways to keep improving.
Hiring, Compliance, and Payroll
Companies must determine whether they hire full time employees or contractors, US-based or international, own and operate their own offices or leverage a PEO (Professional Employer Organization). There are benefits and tradeoffs of each but ultimately companies must make their decisions and numerous companies are equipped to assist in the process.
- Hiring & Payment: If you’re hiring your own FTEs globally or need to pay global contractors, Papaya Global, Remote.com, Pilot.co, and RemoteTeam offer great solutions
- Recruiting: If you’re looking for help recruiting, setting up, and running a fully remote team, companies like Terminal, Turing, and Arc help on the engineering side
- Management: If you want to manage your own team and open remote offices, BeyondHQ will help you figure out where and find you space, Certn will perform background checks in 200 countries, and Byteboard or Coderpad help with technical remote interviews
- Contractors: If you’re only dealing with contractors, Deel has you covered
- HR & IT: For distributed hiring (plus onboarding) for the US only, Rippling offers a comprehensive solution solving both HR and IT challenges
- Housing: If you’re looking for more of a co-living/co-working situation, Uplex and Outsite provide new-age and hybrid solutions
Onboarding can incorporate everything from getting your tech or office setup, going through any workplace-specific training, meeting your colleagues, and getting up to speed on all corporate policies, processes, and useful information.
- HR & Tech: For employees in the US, Rippling, doing the payroll and HR onboarding as well as hardware and software procurement and issuance from mobile phones and laptops to SaaS licenses
- Office Setup: Firstbase provides home-based employees with ergonomic office setups making them feel comfortable and getting them up and running
- Knowledge Management: Knowledge bases which can be as simple as Google Docs, Coda, Airtable and Notion or purpose-built tools like Guru, Slab, Almanac, and Slite become critical places to store information around company values, processes, and more
- Org Charts: Org chart tools like The Org and Charthop can keep your internal directory in order so remote employees can know who is who
Communication and Collaboration
Table stakes today includes a messaging tool, video conferencing solution, and some kind of collaborative documentation platform. New “virtual office”, “collaborative workspaces”, and business unit specific tools are providing compelling products.
- Messaging: Most startups will use an internal messaging tool such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Mattermost (open source version of Slack). New remote-first solutions have popped up such as Twist, Leverice, Involve, and Quill
- Video Conferencing: While Zoom and Meet remain the most popular solutions for video conferencing, competitors such as Jitsi (open source), Whereby, Jamm, and Around have gained passionate users
- Intelligent Transcription: On top of your video conferencing platform of choice, products like Grain, Fireflies, Otter, and Colibri provide transcription and smart meeting note capabilities
- Noise Reduction: To remove background noise across all apps (your colleagues may be getting sick of hearing your baby, puppy, or random toilet flush), many teams use Krisp for clear conversations
- Virtual Office: “Collaboration Workspaces” and “Virtual Office” solutions have sprung up providing hybrid video conferencing and Slack-like tools into one. Examples of this include Pragli, Tandem, Soccoco, Teemly, and Happeo which is targeted at larger enterprises
- Digital Whiteboard: Virtual whiteboard solutions such as Miro, MURAL, Ideaflow, and BeeCanvas have become critical for bringing teams together to brainstorm, mindmap, and plan together
- Team Specific Collaboration: Team specific tools have been purpose built for collaboration between specific business units. On the engineering side, CoScreen, Screen, Tuple, and Use Together enable engineers to share screens, pair program, and stay in sync. For Design teams, Figma, Invision, Framer, and Sketch have become extremely popular collaboration tools. For Marketers, Persado, Ditto, and Quordoba help keep writing and brand consistent and top notch
- Presentations: Other point solutions for collaboration are tackling things like dashboards (Graphy) and presentations (Pitch)
- Standups: To keep teams in sync via synchronous or asynchronous standups, companies such as Standups, Geekbot, Standuply, and Dailybot enable standups, check ins, retros, and more
- Calendar: With colleagues in multiple time zones, calendaring needs become more complex. A whole host of companies offer products to help take the burden off of scheduling time including Clockwise, Woven, Coco, Commanddot, Reclaim, and many others
Every successful remote team talks about culture above all else as the key to making distributed work and productive for their team. While many aspects of cultivating your own culture will be unique to each company, there are tools that help with some areas that are consistent across companies.
- Perks: Personalized perks offered by companies like Zestful and Cherry help employees feel appreciated and taken care of
- Water Cooler: To build camaraderie among employees, always-on water cooler chat rooms like Jackfruit, Remotion, and Hallway try to mimic the serendipitous nature of offices
- Team Bonding: To get to know colleagues, products like Donut and Welcome match employees one-to-one to build relationships
- Engagement: HR-focused solutions like CultureAmp and Bob help measure and drive employee engagement, sentiment, and overall wellbeing
Employee Learning & Development
Continuing to invest in people’s development, growth, and leadership has direct impacts on the business from employee engagement to increased retention to boosts in productivity. More and more teams, especially distributed teams, are leveraging tools to align employees on things like goals, performance, and learning opportunities.
- Goals: Goal setting and management is critical to getting teams rowing in the same direction and tools like Lattice, Ally, and Workboard provide OKR and goal-tracking solutions that put an emphasis on employee engagement
- Performance Management: For more generic performance management and tracking, 15Five, Reflektive, Betterworks, and Coachhub provide transparency and useful insights
- Coaching: Coaching solutions provide 1:1 learning opportunities for either leadership with companies like Torch, or for the entire organization through Sidekick, Betterup, GoCoach and more
- Learning & Development: Other interesting companies focused on employee L&D include PlusPlus which is a peer-learning tool to scale tribal knowledge, Matter which is focused on feedback, and Mento which is a career support system.
Analysis of 2nd & 3rd Order Effects of Remote Work
While remote work is a first order effect from this global pandemic, there are many identifiable second and third order effects that will result. Four second order effects that I believe will require massive shifts in tools and spending for companies are:
- Work shifts from synchronous to asynchronous
- Collaboration moves digital
- Employees must be able to self-serve
- Needs of workers shifts to focus on culture, wellness, and mental health
Let’s dive into each one of these and discuss how these will change the work and enterprise tooling landscape and what third order effects will subsequently ensue.
To move from a synchronous work environment to an asynchronous one, a few things will happen:
- Documentation becomes critical and building a culture of documentation at your company is the grease in the wheels to ensure productivity and ability to function as a team
- Communication and messaging needs change as more information is spread through email, messengers like Slack and Teams, and documentation and project management tools like G Suite, Microsoft Office, Asana, Trello, Notion, Coda, and many more proliferate in a bring-your-own-tools environment
- Employees will get email and message fatigue so new ways of prioritizing, triaging, and filtering will become necessary
Collaboration will now be done in digital tools instead of conference rooms:
Virtual whiteboarding, mindmapping, and design thinking moves from a physical whiteboard to a digital one with tools like Miro, MURAL, and Ideaflow. All team-based or project based work needs a digital home. Much of this work gets split up and done among a dozen or so apps creating information silos and the need to bring things together in a unified and searchable way.
- Tools such as Notion, Coda, Airtable, paired with project management tools like Trello, Monday, Asana, or new ones like Cycle, Linear, Productboard, Aha, Height, etc and brought together into knowledge bases like Guru, Slab, Almanac, or Slite with enterprise search capabilities enabled with companies like Command E, FYI, Slapdash, Keeper, and Seva help you keep track of everything
Feedback, coaching, training, learning, and goal setting will need digital tools to enable these functions to happen.
- Coaching platforms like Hone, Torch, Betterup, Strive, and Sidekick help democratize digital coaching while Betterworks, 15Five, and Reflektive help with individual and management performance evaluation. Point solutions like Matter (feedback), Ethena (sexual harassment training), and Mento (career support) enable digital and asynchronous employee betterment
External party interactions with partners or customers that previously required work travel, lengthy meetings, dinners, conferences, etc. will shift towards collaborative tools that ensure the privacy and security of each party but enable cross-company work to get done.
- Teams that typically involve inter-company collaboration are sales, customer support, accounting, consulting, and management. Early examples of this are the document storage companies like Box and Dropbox or e-signature platforms Docusign or Hellosign. Some examples of modern platforms include Stampli (collaboration for accounts payable), and Accord (collaboration for complex enterprise sales)
- Conferences, team events, hackathons, and other forms of large-scale meetings will shift to digital platforms like Run The World, Hopin, Remo, Icebreaker, HeySummit, Airmeet, and more
3. Self-Serve Tools
When employees can no longer walk over to their colleagues and ask a quick question, they must be able to self-serve both to create workflow and find information or data:
Workflow creation moves to the edges of the enterprise, enabling non-technical business users to create automations and processes to serve their own needs.
- Zapier, Standard Library, Workato, Syncari, Clay, and Tray allow anyone to connect API endpoints to build rules-based automations
- Bubble, Webflow, Glide, Adalo, and other no-code tools remove the programming requirements to build websites or applications
- Retool, Flowdash, Pipefy, and Internal have made the process of building internal tools simple and took the burden off the engineering team to focus on core competencies of the business
- Airtable, Dashdash, Stacker, and Actiondesk have created “supercharged spreadsheets” to enable the power of a database in the hands of an Excel user
- Sisu, ObviouslyAI, Cascade, and Narrator are pushing data science capabilities to business users who need to analyze data and make decisions
- Vanta, Shujinko, WorkOS, and Very Good Security are automating the enterprise-readiness processes that used to be a huge pain and drain on engineering teams
Knowledge bases and information search/discovery become essential when work is both distributed and asynchronous.
- Startups such as Almanac, Slite, Guru, and Slab act as new age knowledge bases but still require a lot of human compliance and manual management
- On the information search and discovery side, a whole host of startups have emerged to wrangle your SaaS/information silos and enable search across applications. Companies like FYI, Keeper, Slapdash, Clew and Seva take a Chrome extension approach giving you quick search capabilities when you connect your apps. Another approach taken by companies like Station, Command E, Onna, Workona, or Shift requires a downloadable application that pulls your apps into a single space
Needs of workers shift to focus on culture, wellness, and mental health
Organizations will increasingly prioritize culture and engagement among the employee base to foster a positive environment and improve employee retention and also productivity.
- Whether it’s spontaneous always-on water cooler video rooms like Jackfruit, Remotion, or Hallway, personalized perks from Zestful or Cherry, or team bonding culture tools like Donut and Culture Amp, distributed companies will make sure their people feel connected and appreciated and will measure engagement in tools like Bob, Lattice, or others
Mental health and wellness will no longer take a back seat or be stigmatized in a work context. Companies will slowly encourage employees to discuss these topics and will purchase solutions to help them feel and do their best.
- B2B2C companies like Modern Health, Ginger, and Spring Health (or even Calm and Headspace who are now selling into businesses) provide employees with mental health care in a modern, digital-first format
Productivity at an individual, team, and company level will become more quantified and products will arise that take structured and unstructured data from text, voice, and video to measure and help improve productivity.
- Personal productivity tools like Centered, Serene, and Harvest try to enable focus and flow states
- Team-focused tools like Range, Kettle, Hive, and Focusmate help teams know when to collaborate together or when people are focusing and measures progress
- Many tools plug into video conferencing solutions to record, transcribe, summarize, and improve meetings such as Fireflies, Grain, Colibri, Notiv, Krisp and Otter
It’s not just the employee’s desk that has moved to the home but the whole office. Startups have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine those functions. Instead of just “how does this happen from home?”, the best ones ask “how can this be done 10x better?”
SignalFire is seeking high-potential startups addressing new and historic pain points related to the future of work. We bring to the table our Beacon technology for predictive recruiting and market data analysis, our talent team that can ensure you score your dream hires, and our network of 85+ invested-advisors including founders from Slack and Coda, former and current executives at Adobe, Google, Netflix and many more that help support our portfolio companies. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out on our website if you’re building something special . See you on Zoom!